Will supermarkets lead the charge with plastic packaging reform?

There is enough evidence on the perils of plastic waste and the damage it’s doing to our planet for even the laziest of consumers to admit that we all have to make a concerted effort to curb our plastic use. The argument that it’s fine to use plastic, as long as it’s recycled has proven to be seriously flawed as more and more evidence emerges that the majority of plastic is still getting dumped rather than being recycled.

So where do we start to address the plastic problem? Is it up to consumers to say no? Should manufacturers be looking for more sustainable alternatives? Or should retailers rethink how they’re selling the products that line their shelves?

Whose responsibility is it?

Urban life is a packaged life and it’s what we’ve become used to. Most consumers under the age of 40, don’t even recall when milk was delivered to the doorstep in a glass bottle on a deposit return system. Or when you had to go to the fresh produce market to buy carrots and tomatoes and the butcher for meat. Yes markets still exist, but they are trendy weekend events, not everyday shopping experiences. Today, you buy everything at the supermarket, from household cleaning materials to yoghurt. And all of it is packaged.

From a retailers perspective they have businesses to operate and their primary concern is making sales. They buy products and sell them on to customers. As part of that they need to know that the products will move off the shelves, and that until they do, they will remain intact and fit for use. In its defense plastic packaging has to a large degree achieved this. Packaging helps to sell the product, it uses branding, colours and design to attract the eye of the consumer. It also preserves the shelf life of the product.

The problem is that while plastic packaging solved the problem of shelf life for retailers, it’s created a culture that is now so entrenched in everything being wrapped up. Take a box of biscuits for example. Inside the box is plastic packing to keep the biscuits fresh. Inside that is another plastic crate to prevent them from being crushed. All elements of the packaging have a purpose - that may be true. But if for every one box of biscuits three items of plastic waste are generated, is there any wonder there is a plastic pollution problem in the world? 

Trying to decide who is at fault for this entrenched behaviour is fairly pointless, we could spend another decade debating and pointing fingers while the plastic continues to suffocate the environment. Everyone, from the consumer through to the manufacturer should have a vested interest in reducing plastic packaging.

And let’s be clear, we’re not talking about reducing the amount of plastic that goes to landfill because it’s supposed to be recyclable. We’re talking reducing the production and use of plastic in retail. Period. Recycling – that’s another efficiency debate. Let’s take recycling out of the equation for a minute and start to consider what other solutions there might be for reducing plastic waste in retail.

1 - Change packaging:

Instead of using plastic and polystyrene trays for packaging fresh produce, supermarkets might consider trays made from recycled paper, similar to egg boxes that are fully compostable. Instead of plastic packets for fruits such as apples, brown paper packets might be considered.  They may not look as attractive, but they can serve the same purpose. Bio plastics are now being produced on a commercial scale that are made from natural fibres such as sugar cane, corn or sorghum. The more these forms of packaging are adopted, the cheaper production will become. But it will need demand generation for that to happen on a scale that is large enough to be effective. If retailers drive that demand, there’s a chance it can happen. Similarly, if products can be packaged in glass and deposit return schemes are adopted by retailers, it could significantly reduce the amount of plastic packaging produced.

2 – Change displays

Several European stores have piloted ‘free-zones’ in which produce is sold free of packaging and consumers select only what they need. This is proving to be very efficient. Instead of having to buy a bag of onions, a person can buy just 1 or 2. There is less waste, both of food and of packaging. Admittedly, the recent pandemic is likely to dampen these efforts as people fear food contamination. Perhaps once the crisis has passed it may be reconsidered.

3 – Change marketing approach

Much of the packaging problem is due to branding. Clear or brown packaging isn’t as attractive as colourful packaging – but it could be, if marketed correctly. Surveys reflect that the majority of consumers would like to reduce plastic packaging or buy more ecofriendly alternatives. Yet marketers assume this is only for the eco-loving elite, rather than mass market. If plain natural packaging can be promoted as enthusiastically as branded packaging it may have a big influence on consumer buying behaviour.

All of these changes are possible, the problem remains who will drive the process? Retailers have the power to be a positive influence in the fight against plastic waste, but will they?